Happy Mother’s Day. As I’m sure y’all know, though Mother’s Day is important in the rhythm of family life, it is not a liturgical holiday. The consequence is that the liturgical readings don’t exactly follow a Mother’s Day theme. Happily, we never have to go too far below the surface of the Gospel to find something relevant to the mystery of Christian motherhood.
Today’s is no exception. It’s a little known fact, but there are not a few Scripture scholars who suggest that the unnamed companion walking with Cleopas on the road to Emmaus was his wife. They infer this because this couple’s encounter with Jesus evokes another couple’s encounter with Jesus—Mary and Joseph’s finding of the 12-year-old Jesus in the temple. The parallels are striking: it’s the time of Passover, Jesus’ absence is remarked on the road away form Jerusalem, they search in vain for three days, and when they find him, Jesus says, Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be about my father’s affairs? (Lk 2:49). Jesus’ gentle chiding of Mary and Joseph foreshadows Jesus’ scolding of Cleopas and his companion, who failed to hope in the resurrection: Foolish ones, slow of heart to believe all that the prophets had spoken! Was it not necessary for the Messiah to suffer these things and enter into his glory? (Lk 24:25-26).
One can also hear faint echoes of Adam and Eve in the meal that Jesus and the couple share. The first meal mentioned in Scripture is actually the eating of forbidden fruit. Its effect is that the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked (Gen 3:7). When Cleopas and his companion eat with Jesus, the effect is that the eyes of them were opened, and they recognized him (Lk 24:31).
What’s most significant for our understanding of dignity of Christian motherhood is not just the fact that today’s Gospel makes allusions to the role that mothers (Eve and Mary) have played in salvation history. What’s significant is the broader point about life in Christ that the Gospel makes by means of these allusions: In Christ’s resurrection, Israel’s history is fulfilled and her long exile ended. In the Eucharist, the curse upon creation of has come to an end; creation is now fit to be transformed into God himself. God has the power to keep his promises; His love is more powerful than sin and death.
These basic messages of today’s Gospel—the faithfulness of God, the goodness of creation, the offer of eternal life—cannot but shape our attitude toward bringing new life into the world, toward that mystery with which mothers are so intimately associated. For without these basic assurances, the decision to bring a child into the becomes for us an unacceptable risk. We know from our own experience that every life has its share of sorrows as well as joys, and we know that children can’t be consulted beforehand on whether or not they want to be born. If we lose the confidence that ours is a God who turns sorrow into joy, death into life, then we—like good actuaries—must begin to calculate on their behalf. Will their lives be more blessing than curse? Bring more pleasure than pain?
Even if a child is given every worldly advantage, even if the odds are stacked overwhelmingly in his or her favor, a nagging doubt still remains about the value of a life that ends in death. I ran across a reflection written by Simone de Beauvoir that illustrated this point. She was a cultured, privileged intellectual running in the most elite circles of French society. She was also an outspoken atheist. In the last page of one her journals, she contemplates her death with a certain rawness and honesty:
Yet I loathe the thought of annihilating myself quite as much now as I ever did. I think with sadness of all the books I’ve read, all the places I’ve seen, all the knowledge I’ve amassed and that will be no more. All the music, all the paintings, all the culture, so many places … and suddenly nothing. Nothing will have taken place …
Perhaps not coincidentally, Simone de Beauvoir never wanted to be a mother.
I bring this up, not to weigh down this happy day with dark thoughts, but in order to form a point of contrast. For this is not the Christian experience. Ours is the experience of being rescued from the futility of death. The second reading from the first letter of Peter calls this to our attention no less forcefully than de Beauvoir’s journal: you were ransomed from your futile conduct, handed on by your ancestors … with the precious blood of Christ as of a spotless, unblemished lamb. Now your faith and hope are in God. Because of Christ, we need no longer worry whether we hand on something futile in handing on the gift of life. For our lives are in His hands. And He has overcome death.
And so, even though Mother’s Day is not a liturgical feast, it is a profoundly Christian feast. And it’s no accident that the holiday first sprang up in Christian countries, and spread from there to other parts of the world. For it is only in light of Christ’s Resurrection that we can celebrate motherhood simply and without misgivings. For it is only in Christ that both our lives and the mothers who gave us life can be appreciated for what they truly are—gracious gifts from God.